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This book examines the place of Hong Kong in the British imagination between the end of World War II and the return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty in July 1997. It argues that Hong Kong has received far less attention from British imperial and cultural historians than its importance would warrant. It argues that Hong Kong was a site within which competing yet complementary visions of Britishness could be imagined—for example, the British penchant for trade and good government, and their role as agents of modernization. At the centre of these articulations of Britishness was the idea of Hong Kong as a “barren rock” that British administration had transformed into one of the world’s great cities—and the danger of its destruction by the impending “handover” to communist China in 1997.
The book moves freely between the activities of Britons in Hong Kong and portrayals of Hong Kong within domestic British discourse. It uses such printed primary sources as newspapers, memoirs, novels, political pamphlets, and academic texts, and archival material located in the United Kingdom, Hong Kong, the United States, and Australia, including government documents, regimental collections, and personal papers.
Once it became clear in the early 1980s that sovereignty over Hong Kong would revert to China, commentators argued over the meaning of the “handover” and Britain’s imperial legacy. While Foreign Office “China hands” emphasised that little would change, politicians such Margaret Thatcher and Governor Christopher Patten insisted that Britain was exiting with dignity, leaving behind a free society with a vibrant capitalist economy. They further insisted that the Sino-British Joint Declaration (1984) secured Hong Kong’s future. At the same time, much popular commentary—especially in a spate of 1990s novels including Stephen Leather’s The Vets, Paul Theroux’s Kowloon Tong, and John Burdett’s The Last Six Million Seconds—portrayed the future in apocalyptic terms. Following the Tiananmen Square killings of 1989, moreover, many commentators accused a “perfidious” Britain of cravenly abandoning the people of Hong Kong.
During the post-war period, as a broad consensus was thought to have formed in the UK around the welfare state, Hong Kong was widely heralded as an arena in which pre-1945 British capitalist and entrepreneurial ideals continued to flourish. To its defenders, Hong Kong’s laissez-faire practices, or “positive non-interventionism”, made Hong Kong more British than Britain itself. Detractors of colonial Hong Kong, who emphasized sweatshops and squatter huts, confirmed the sharp difference between metropolitan and colonial practice. To Hong Kong’s champions, whose views were broadly hegemonic, Britain’s “benign neglect” was largely responsible for Hong Kong’s transformation from a “barren rock” into one of the world’s great cities. Not only did such views appear in political debates and journalistic accounts, but they also came out in fictional accounts, above all in the novels of James Clavell. At the same time, Hong Kong’s advocates insisted that greater regulation was not only self-defeating but futile; according to prevailing discourse, Chinese people “liked to overwork”. During the 1960s and 1970s, critics of Britain’s welfare state consensus, including Sir Keith Joseph, often used Hong Kong as a foil for critiquing Britain’s own supposed failed economic policies and economic decline.
Coexisting with the laissez-faire discourse described in chapter two, British accounts of Hong Kong—including official ones—also emphasized modernization. Above all, this meant containing the disorder of the overcrowded areas, and filling in the “empty” rural areas of the New Territories. Such discourse often juxtaposed modernity with Chineseness, implying not only that the British were the effective agents of modernity, but that it was an inherently non-indigenous import. To an extent, the tropes of order and modernization contradicted the idea of a free-wheeling capitalist economy, because it cited deliberate planning. Yet because such top-down planning focused on infrastructure projects and public housing that would facilitate cheap labour, it can be seen as a complementary pro-business discourse. The British discursive imposition of order and modernization was displayed, above all, in zoning regulations, in the development of public housing (accelerating after a massive 1953 fire at Shek Kip Mei), in the creation of planned New Towns such as Tsuen Wan, Tuen Mun, and Sha Tin, and in major infrastructure projects including the Plover Cove reservoir and the Chek Lap Kok airport.
Post-war Hong Kong was not merely an arena for developing capitalism, modernisation, and good governance; it was also a site for leisure. Above all, Hong Kong was described as a venue for male leisure. This included recreating institutions familiar from home, such as sport and clubs, and allowing a wider range of sexual opportunity than the UK did, even in an era of “permissiveness”. Commentators, including for example Ian Fleming, described Hong Kong as a place in which European and American men could enjoy easy access to Asian women’s bodies, thanks to the conjunction of poverty and a traditional desire of Asian women to please men. The archetype of such a woman was Richard Mason’s character Suzie Wong. Whereas the enjoyment of heterosexual opportunity required a moderate amount of discretion, homosexual liaisons—criminal offenses for most of the Colonial period—required virtual secrecy. The latter point is illustrated by the death of police inspector John MacLennan.
This chapter provides the context in which Britain’s post-war cultural engagement with Hong Kong occurred. At the end of World War II, the Colonial Government resumed control over a now depopulated city in which many buildings were in ruins. However, with civil war in mainland China, and the establishment the People’s Republic in 1949, Hong Kong saw its population explode, with many people living in ramshackle squatters’ huts. Throughout the post-war period, Hong Kong’s relationship with China was its most important one, and the Colony’s economic miracle developed against the backdrop of the expectation that China could resume sovereignty over Hong Kong at any time, but certainly by 1997 when Britain’s lease of the New Territories expired. Hong Kong was also a key site in the Cold War, serving for the United States as a post for “China-watching” and, during the Vietnam War, as a recreation spot for soldiers on leave. Hong Kong’s population and economic growth occurred against the backdrop of Britain’s decolonization, so that in the first three post-war decades, this formerly insignificant colony became Britain’s most important imperial territory. Finally, the chapter examines the types of British expatriates and settlers who lived in Hong Kong during the post-war period.
As Britain prepared for the 1997 change of sovereignty, it became common to cite Hong Kong as an example of the British talent for “good governance”, and to name the establishment of rule of law and governing institutions as one of Britain’s most important legacies. Yet this emphasis on good governance was not only a parting reflection, but was a constant theme throughout the post-war period. Before the late 1960s, commentary emphasized minimal government and indirect rule, with magistrate Austin Coates likening himself to a Confucian “mandarin”. After the 1967-68 riots, the Government emphasized more proactive attempts to connect to their subjects, and to close the “gap” that had emerged between rulers and ruled. In this context, especially under Governor Murray MacLehose, it pursued numerous administrative and social reforms, established the Independent Commission Against Corruption, and significantly expanded its public relations efforts, while steadily avoiding any move toward democratization, even as such activists as Elsie Elliott called for it. Only once the change of sovereignty was inevitable did the British countenance serious democratic reforms, as the Christopher Patten government sought to leave a legacy. Throughout all these changes, the discourse of “good governance” constantly emphasized its pragmatic character.
This chapter argues that the Government generally showed little interest in turning Hong Kong people into Britons, and there is little evidence that many Chinese ever identified subjectively as Britons. Even the Anglophile entrepreneur Sir David Tang positively disavowed subjective Britishness, while the majority of Hong Kong’s Chinese always had limited English skills. At the same time, particularly before the 1980s many migrants from Hong Kong to the UK, most from the New Territories, remained more connected to their home villages than to the UK, a point that has been depicted by novelist Timothy Mo. On the other hand, an instrumental Britishness was often displayed in political rhetoric, especially after the Tiananmen Square killings in 1989. In this context, advocacy groups including the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants asserted that the Britishness of Chinese and South Asian subjects entitled them to the right of abode in the United Kingdom, a claim that was supported by Member of Parliament Bernie Grant and vigorously rejected by Member of Parliament Enoch Powell, and ultimately by the Government. In addition to instrumental Britishness, certain elements of British culture have been incorporated into popular assertions of Hong Kong identity.
This introduction argues that Hong Kong has rarely been considered as a site for Britain’s cultural engagement with its empire. For the period since World War II, the predominant narrative has been decolonization, and yet in the case of Hong Kong, the first three post-war decades were a crucial period of colonial state-building, with the British departure becoming assured only after 1982. The British cultural engagement with Hong Kong was most salient for those Britons who actually spent time there, whether as expatriates, short-term soldiers, or tourists. Hong Kong featured in metropolitan discourse most strikingly at particular moments of crisis, including the 1967-68 riots and the 1997 “handover”. At the same time, though, it featured in more sporadic and mundane ways, whether as the setting for a television series or romance novel, the source of children’s toys, or in reports from friends and family who lived and worked there. In these various contexts, Hong Kong constituted a site for the projection of a distinct Britishness.
This chapter examines Hong Kong between 1945 and 1979 as an imagined space in which a British “unbridled capitalism” could flourish even as Britain itself developed a welfare state “consensus”. Drawing on political pamphlets, novels, memoirs, journalistic accounts, politicians’ speeches, and trade organizations’ papers, it argues that Hong Kong was widely seen by expatriates as a place in which British values survived after having been quashed in a “declining” Britain. At the same time, Hong Kong provided a foil against which neo-liberal think tanks could highlight Britain’s need to revive an enterprise culture. In fact, Hong Kong’s status as a laissez-faire economy was overstated, as the government increasingly intervened in such fields as housing, public health, education, and infrastructure. In addition, this meme depended on assumptions that the Chinese were compulsive workers uninterested in leisure, and that Hong Kong Chinese were politically apathetic, both of which collapsed in the late 1960s. Despite these tensions, this distinct idea of a Hong Kong Britishness provided a cultural legacy that survived the collapse of the “British world”. At the same time, by preserving what were often called neo-Victorian economic ideals, Hong Kong constituted a model to which anti-Keynesian British politicians of the 1970s could point.